I was never really a Beatles fan over the course of my life. I preferred Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones and John Lee Hooker and The Who and for a long time the Beatles mainly annoyed me. But I was especially annoyed by their fans and the weirdly gushing, even religious devotion they had for the band. I just didn't share it.
I'm a few decades older now and have worked out that I liked the stuff they did from about Rubber Soul forward, particularly Revolver. I also got the sense that the band was exponentially more than the sum of its parts. None of the Beatles as individual artists would go on to do anything that stuck with me. They all needed each other, the four of them, and over time it began to see mthey also needed Martin.
The Beatles, with George Martin, transformed pop music. I might liken it to a sea change that could be compared to Haydn in the Esterhazy court. Haydn's willingness to take composers like Mozart or Beethoven under his wing, so to speak, inspired them in a number of ways. Haydn's own music I like the best of the "big three". Mozart could get too facile for me and Beethoven too long-winded whereas Haydn seemed to find that region of conceptual space where he could stay as long as he was welcome at the party and politely excuse himself when he sensed it was time to go.
But did that mean the patronage system of the 1700s was "fair"? No, of course not. I've read a few progressive writers in the last couple of years complain about how there's this winner-take-all thing going on in the arts and that the people who win, win big and the people who can't make it don't even have a shot at making a living at it.
That's how it worked in the 1600s under aristocratic patronage. A little music history shows that even the aristocrats might not always come through on paying their artists. Sometimes they would pay artists in-kind, firewood or meat in exchange for services rendered. Haydn was contracted as part of a military class so if he ever didn't show up for work one day he could be arrested as if it were a court martial, more or less. Scott Timberg's failure to mention this kind of historical detail has been part of why Iv'e found it impossible to take his vent about old-school patronage seriously. Was the old school pimperial form of patronage actually "worse" than record label representatives "paying" blues musicians with cases of whiskey, as legend sometimes had was done? It seems like a distinction without a difference over the sweep of centuries.
Somebody somewhere on the internet reviewed Richard Taruskin's sprawling Oxford History of Western Music and pointed out that it's not a music survey set but a history of patronage systems and philosophical rationales for the creation of written music. What Taruskin doesn't do is suggest that written music is "better" or even "legitimate" in contrast with or in comparison to oral traditions, and what he also doesn't do is suggest that there was ever a "good" empire of patronage, ever, in the history of humanity. It's possible to describe how in certain empires of patronage some music many of us still love emerged without for even one second pretending that that patronage system was "fair".
Just as a magical accident of history can lead an Esterhazy clan to bankroll a Haydn, or a George Martin chooses to invest in four guys from Liverpool, there's no reason these historical incidents that played large roles in shaping what we call music history should be construed as a "defense" of the ethics of the patronage empire in question. If anything it might have been wiser back in the 1700s for people to merely wish their despots were enlightened rather than imagine that one day there would never be despots.
There's no reason to assume that today's corporate suit is any less an aristocrat who runs society than someone from centuries ago. The way Jacques Ellul put it in 1965 was that propagandists, those who could centrally control mass media whether as private citizens or state functionaries, were the new aristocratic class. It wouldn't matter if it was a capitalist or socialist system, either, but that people believe propagandistic slogans that it's otherwise is some thought for another time.
The fact that aristocrats have tastes that coincide with popular interest means a lot of things, but it doesn't mean that the corporate label system that's been in place for a century is necessarily any more fair than previous empires of patronage. While there has been an emerging culture of free the culture of free in itself doesn't always suggest that you can reliably monetize what you've made. It's not even any assurance that the empire of corporate patronage will end any time soon. Most of the ways you could distribute stuff have limits, limits that can be imposed by the corporations that influence and shape how you can distribute what you've made.
That the Beatles and George Martin made some fun music wouldn't be taken as a refutation of the blasting of "middlebrow" by an old leftist like, say, Dwight Macdonald. In his polemic the corporations that were producing popular culture were incapable, by their very nature, of even producing art. They were corporations with committees and teams. It wasn't that art couldn't flourish within the system, Macdonald obviously loved jazz but he considered that a vestigial surviving folk culture that was being preserved by the recording industry. He was far more pessimistic about rock as a popular form. Of course a whole lot of leftists since have decided Macdonald had to be wrong about pop music ... because ... because a whole lot of people liked Elvis and the Beatles.
But ... what if we threw Macdonald a bone and remembered that he wasn't arguing that there could not be any great artists who were also popular. He liked Chaplin, for instance, and pointed out that there were artists able to create great art IN SPITE OF the studio system rather than because of it. Macdonald had given himself the ultimate trump card, he was damning the corporate system rather than anchoring everything to opposition to one form of popular music (that mistake was less the domain of Macdonald, who didn't seem to think much of rock while liking jazz, and more the domain of folks like Adorno).
I've been thinking about this ever since I saw Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises. I've seen a few film critics talk about how it's about an aeronautical engineer who designs the plane that became the Mitsubishi Zero, and about how it's about the artist and the artistic process. Well, if so, what Miyazaki was saying is that there has never been, and can never even be, an art that is not in some way reflective of the aspirations and anxieties of an empire. What world would you choose, one with or without the pyramids?
There's no art history that can avoid the reality that the history of art is often the history of nasty, terrible people who bankroll the creation of beautiful things. Sure, there's also generous and salutary people who bankroll the creation of beautiful things, too, but that should just be a reminder to us that the individuals who stand out may frequently be the exceptions that prove the rule. If corporate backed pop music seems terrible to people now don't imagine that corporate backed pop music wasn't just as terrible half a century ago, or that concert music financed by autocrats in Austria centuries ago didn't have something self-aggrandizing about it, or that the rulers who financed the building of pyramids in Egypt weren't making statements about their bling.
Ellul wrote that to the extent that the individual doesn't matter in a mass society the greatness and dignity of individualism will be affirmed. We say our individual lives matter precisely because we know they don't and we can't accept that they don't. All propaganda, Ellul more or less proposed, is a narcotic that solves this emotional/psychological problem of recognizing at a rational level our lives don't matter in a mass society while refusing to accept it emotionally.
Which, in a way, gets at why millions of people all listen to the same songs.